A note on saying goodbye

My father died on June 26, 2017, one hour into his 78th birthday. I have had a strange, comical urge when asked "How was your summer?" by people who don't know, to answer, "Fine! My dad died!" but haven't gone through with it yet, thank god. 

Four months before, he was fine. He was the one-of-a-kind, full of gusto Fred Rotondaro, aka Dad, aka Pops aka Papa Raspa, a moniker he gave himself when he signed his name that way in an email (misspellings things in emails was a hilarious specialty of his). He was booking trips and rallying political activists. He had presence and influence in all the right ways. He had nights out with my mom and lunches with friends. He was very mad about Trump and the next minute wanted me to know about this fabulous new red wine he'd discovered. The first thing I tell people when they say how sorry they are is that I miss him so much, but the fact that my dad lived such a full life makes it easier, and inspires me to do the same. And it's 100 percent true. 

He died of glioblastoma, which is a very aggressive brain cancer. I learned a lot about the disease while we were dealing with his illness, and learned a lot of other things too, like that if you are trying to get tons of calories into a smoothie, macademia nuts is a good option. I learned that my little brother is an absolute hero, and was even more convinced of the fact that my mom is the champion of managing the most challenging situations. I reaffirmed that being part of the Rotondaro family of four is one of the greatest honors of my life. 

I also learned is that the circumstances surrounding a person's sickness or death are often complicated, and that's a lesson I'll carry with me, hopefully making me a more compassionate person. I can't tell you how many times I've heard that someone passed away and exclaimed, "Wait. What happened? I didn't even know he was sick." It was valuable to witness that these things don't always play out in an easy-to-follow narrative, despite everybody's best efforts.

It's too much to write the whole story here, but my dad's sickness revealed itself with a stammer he suddenly developed - a type of speech aphasia - and after his first trip to the hospital, the whole thing went very quickly. What we thought was a minor stroke wasn't; what we thought was a small, operable brain tumor was a high-grade cancer with a harsh prognosis; there was a car accident and other complications. There were brilliant, aggressive doctors and there was our amazing caretaker Janie, and there were so many other details that played a part, but in the end, he didn't go through chemo and radiation, because of those complications and the tumor's rapid growth. Treatment, the incredibly wise doctors told my mom and brother during one of their visits, wouldn't improve his quality of life or increase his time with us. My father was stoic and funny throughout the experince, never losing his sense of self. He died peacefully at home. 

It's impossible to know, but we feel with this kind of disease, and considering my dad's personality, the way it happened might have been a blessing. Let's put it this way: he liked having his own form of transporation when we went to social events, because although he was an incredibly friendly person, he never wanted a late night. This was a man who always wanted to leave the party early. Everyone knew of the "Fred exit."

"Dad did it just right," my brother told me in a text shortly after the funeral, when I was feeling low and asking a lot of "what ifs." Vinnie - then, and many times since - gave me so much solace with his assessment. I agreed. 

We tried to provide regular updates, but I know that for all our friends and family, it went really fast. Now, in retrospect, I see that. But when it was happening? I was so entrenched in his illness, both from afar and periodically in person - visiting my family in Maryland whenever I could - and it seemed endless. Often that was wonderful, as though time were doing me a favor, slowing down just enough so that me and my family could process each step, and spend hours talking about and researching my dad's condition. Most importantly, so that we could spend unhurried time together. Of course, when I was worried about his condition, or waiting for information, the hours seemed like days. That was less pleasant.

But - and I know it sounds really crazy - during those intense, eventful weeks, when I'd sometimes go to bed texting my brother until I fell asleep, we had a lot of good times.

Hard times too, I mean, I'm not a lunatic (HI JANIE!) who thinks a parent dying is a walk in the park, but it was an amazing experience, those few months marked by so many tangible, ineffible details; long nights over bottles of wine, discussing brain injuries; my sister-in-law Audrey and uncle Mark trying to light paper lanterns to release out over the Bay, as we laughed at their repeated failure; giving my dad 100 kisses on the forehead as I marched in and out of his bedroom, his smiles in return; and way back at the beginning, eating at the seafood restaurant my wonderful cousin Sam manages in Baltimore the night after my dad's surgery, the cheerful crowd such a salve to a stressful day.

The funeral was held at a Catholic Church, where the helpful priest informed us that having a trumpet player inside during the service would be, ahem, "a little too much," but that we could have him playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" (which my father had informed us on many occasionas he wanted at his funeral) just outside. So as the numerous attendees departed into the hot summer sun, there was our guy playing cheerfully under a lone tree in the churchyard. I could hear the somber silence turn into a ripple of laughter, and people started singing along.

Then there was a party, where old family friends, colleagues and high school and college buddies who had traveled to support us lingered for long enough that pizza was ordered not once, but twice

My dad would have loved it. He would have absolutely loved it. 

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I could try to express here what my dad was like, and what he meant to me, but, first of all, how long do you guys have?Secondly, I think you know. You know if you knew him, and you know if you've ever talked to me about him. You know if you've read my stories about him, or been on the receiving end of one of his many emails. If you've shared a meal with him, or been there for the end of the meal when he pulls out 1,000 different after-dinner drinks, including grappa for the bravest souls. You know if you're from where he's from, in the coalmining country of northeastern Pennsylvania, if you worked with him in an office, or on one of his amazing projects, always railing against injustice, always connecting the right people. 

You know the important parts, his great loves and his funny habits. His adoration of my mother and of our family; his proclivity for striking up a conversation with every single person he met (even though they sometimes didn't want to talk, DAD);  his penchant for muttering "Whhhhhaaaaaaaaaatever" when a conversation got longwinded.

I could go on about him forever, but to be totally honest my purpose here is a little more selfish. Because what I really set out to do in writing this was to talk about how I'm feeling.  

In terms of grieving, wise friends who've been through similar things told me that the funeral would be the easy part - that it would get harder from there - and it was easy to see their point. At first there are so many people wishing you well and sharing memories. Then, there are less (although if you're lucky like me, you've still got a lot of people to talk to, including my mother and brother, a husband who does the best job ever taking care of me when I'm feeling sad and the most loving friends in the universe).

Now, a few months out, I'd say my feelings are fairly simple to explain. I feel great about my relationship with my father and about his full, rewarding, inspiring life. But I miss him. 

I just miss him. 

My dad and I were very close. We had the parent-child relationship everybody wants: open and loving and supportive, complete with plenty of visits and, yes, prone to the occasional, explosive fight. But also? We talked all the time. We talked on the phone when we were bored. I sent him emails about amusing little things that would happen during my day, including things the kids said or did, and more serious emails about writing projects. I asked him where to pitch stories and if he'd edit my pieces. We talked about politics, and about strategies to get Republicans and Democrats to talk to one another in a civil way. We talked about how my brother was always trying to get my parents to drink less coffee and how ridiculous that was (Vinnie, it's ridiculous). 

I am so fortunate that I have a mother (HI MOM you're the best!) who I can also email randomly with funny pictures and random little stories, and who I can call whenever I want career or other life advice, or just want to chat. Who encourages me and, let's be frank, is a much better editor than my dad, who was always "getting back" to me on things (I know what you were up to, you were NAPPING). 

But still. Lately, I'll have a conversation with someone or an experience with the kids - like recently when I took them to town hall and I bored them with a monologue about what the mayor does and the democratic process in general - and I just want to tell him. I can't, though, because he's not there anymore, and it still seems so impossible for that to be true. 

I know that this part will get easier and that I'm just going to have to be patient. There are things however, things right now, that help immensely. 

One of them is the idea that he's still around. Now, I'm not sure what I think about the afterlife (don't tell the Catholics!) but I am a big fan of the American transcendentalist movement. The idea of the "oversoul" and of all people  being connected. During the eulogy I gave at my father's service, I read the end of Walt Whitman's glorious "Song of Myself," a poem my dad had read many times over, and that me and Vinnie read to him while he was sick. 

I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,

I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags. 

I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love, 

If you want me again look for me under your boot-soles. 

You will hardly know who I am or what I mean, 

But I shall be good health to you nevertheless, 

And filter and fibre your blood. 

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, 

Missing me one place search another, 

I stop somewhere waiting for you.

I don't know exactly what Whitman was talking about when he wrote these lines, but to me they are a beautiful description of life's continuity, even in death. Although I never would have imagined this, since my father died I find such comfort in the wind rusting the tree branches; the crash of the waves on the rocks in Maine. I surprise myself by thinking, "there you are."

There are human reminders, too, including my children and the memories they'll carry. Just last summer my dad took Gabriel to art camp one-hour away from the house in Boothbay every single day for a week, afterwards stopping at a hot dog stand where he'd buy my son a dog, a chocolate milk and - Gabriel recently admitted - a brownie (that is too much sugar!)

I took the kids for "Nonno walks" this summer, gathering treats for the house and striking up conversations with whoever, as well as stopping by a favorite shop to buy them a gift. "You get to choose one book each!" I told them, proud of my emulating his generous spirit. "Um Mommy," Nora helpfully informed me, "Nonno would have let us buy lots of books." 

Another thing that has helped recently is that I've allowed myself to start talking to my him. No, not out loud, but whenever I have those previously mentioned moments, wanting to share something specific with him. I recognize that, logically speaking, all I'm doing is talking to a memory, but so what? When you've known someone quite literally since the moment you were born, it seems far too difficult to so abruptly end the dialouge. So I talk to him occasionally, and it's not always the most urgent stuff, like this morning when we'd run out of beans and I didn't have coffee for two and a half hours after waking up (can you even believe it?)

There's another thing too, a mantra of sorts. And it helps me the most. 

It's so simple but so true, and it works in every situation: when I wonder why this all happened, when I find myself crying in the car or when I'm feeling really good.

I just remind myself: because of you, I will be a better person.

See? Nothing major. Just that sentence, so adaptable. A call to action, an easy promise. 

Because of you I will be a better person. Because of you I will be the kind of person who loves hearing mundane stories about everyday life. Because of you I will bring my husband coffee in bed. Because of you I won't let myself wallow - there are too many things to get done! Because of you I'll book that new restaurant. Because of you I'll make friends with strangers. Because of you - ok, I will buy them lots of books. I will finish "Ulysses," have alone time when I need it and carry on your good fights. 

When I'm out for a run by the water or caught up in the mindless insanity of the day. When I think about the ways we'll celebrate all these memories for years to come. When the wind is rusting the leaves on a quiet September afternoon. Because of you I will be a better person. Because of you I will be a better person. Because of you. Because of you. Because of you. 

Hello Connecticut

About ten years ago, on a weekend visit to New Haven in advance of J starting his post-doc in microbiology at Yale, he took me to Anchor Bar, a classic establishment in a city I didn't know; a city that was going to become my new home, at least for a little while. I ordered white wine, which was served in a stemmed glass filled to the absolute brim. I had to lower my head to take a sip while it sat on the table so it wouldn't spill, a cheerful beginning to our new adventure. 

And a new adventure it was. Over the next few months I got a new job - heading into New York City by train a few times a week to write for a start-up - we bought a house and I discovered I was pregnant. Nora was born at Yale-New Haven Hospital in September of 2008 and, suddenly, there in the bright white light of the operating room where they skillfully peformed an unplanned c-section, I became a mother. J and I met our blissfully quiet and inquisitive chubby cheeked infant while Bob Marley played in the background. 

The next few months brought new changes when I (like so many that year) lost my job at the start-up and started spending much more time at home with my new baby. I started looking for freelance writing work, but the transition was tough. I'd always envisioned working full time once I had kids, and I struggled. If I could have seen into the future and realized how fleeting infancy is, I would have soaked up every moment with Nora, who was (and is) an unfathomably good child. But the trials of new motherhood aren't something you can explain away and, besides, it got much better. 

When Nora was just two weeks old, I met my very first mom friend, Amy, at a breastfeeding support group where I realized with intense joy that, OH MY GOD, there are so many of us! Amy and I had playdates with our tiny babies, which were really dates for us. I continued to make friends at child-centric outings and at music classes where I had to sit on the floor, keep the beat and sing while the toddlers roamed the room, seemingly uninterested, although we were assured by the knowledgable teacher that they were learning. This was very far from my comfort zone and the daydreams I had of  meeting with publishers for established writing projects by that point in my life.

But it was ok because I was making new friends and getting out of the house. It was fun, meaningful and memorable. I was building a life in New Haven, a place that, as I explained to nearly everyone we met, we were living temporarily while J completed his post-doc, probably for the next three to five years. 

This sentiment colored our world. When the topic of school came up, I explained that there was no way we'd still be living there once Nora was old enough for kindergarten. J would have gotten a job as a professor running his own lab in some other city by then. I waited an exceedingly long time to replace our malfunctioning dishwasher, because we'd be moving soon anyway, right? And I freelanced instead of looking for a full-time job, which fit both the "transient" and "new mom" aspects of my life. I wrote essays about family life and stories about local businesses. Those months, then years, weren't lost, just anticipatory. 

When you're building a life, though, knowing what's next isn't mandatory. I found a drycleaner I liked, and, despite us almost never having drycleaning to do, she always remembered me and asked about the family. I found a great hairdresser who, like me, loved to gossip; I was devastated when she moved away. My friends and I planned monthly dinners to catch up, had long chats about parenting filled with lifesaving advice, and got a night off from the bedtime routine. Gabriel was born in April, 2011, and motherhood the second time around was way easier; I fawned over his tiny yawns, let him sleep on my chest whenever we got the chance, and didn't fret so much about the long, restless nights. Nora went to pre-K at the magnet school where she still goes today - a fourth grader! - because that "not living here once Nora was old enough for kindergarten" turned out to be, you know, way off. 

But we didn't know. When he was ready, J started looking for jobs, a process that often takes awhile in his field. Sometimes years. He had funding, though, and long-term projects and great health insurance. We had our house and friends and visits from my family that included day trips and long talks and New Haven pizza every time. We had J's parents just a few towns over, and his aunts, uncles and cousins (as well as some of mine) all over the place, providing babysitting and company that made our life infinintely easier - and much more fun. "I didn't know how helpful having family nearby would be, especially with kids," I said to people constantly. "It's amazing."

We attended family Christmas parties, weddings, funerals and baptisms. Many of them ended with late nights in bars, or post-celebration celebrations, like the time we all drank wine on the patio at in my in-laws after one of Nora's birthday parties, then got in the moonbounce. Remember you guys?!

There were scientist get-togethers that incuded classic rock singalongs, trips to Maine and saying sad goodbyes to Yale friends who were moving on (with the promise of future visits in cities all over the world). Adriana was born in the summer of 2014 - my third time heading into labor and delivery at Yale, knowing the drill by then - and then we were a family of five, besotted with the newest member of our crew. Friends thoughtfully brought us meals and life with three children carried on in a less harried way than I'd imagined while pregant (at least until she started walking...).

We constantly complained about the Connecticut winter and booked sunny February getaways, hosted houseguests in our by that point cramped quarters. Gabe was in the preschool at Neighborhood Music School, a local non-profit, and I had long, philosophical talks with the program's director about our always-temporary arrangement, calling them my "therapy sessions" (thank you, Christine!) I took a job there, writing marketing materials and grants. "Well," I figured, "someday we will move somewhere else, but for now we are here."

We spent sunsets by the Long Island Sound with neighbors, sharing wine and beer while our children pulled each other in a green wagon. I met regularly with some of J's female colleagues who'd started a professional support group of sorts, and we worked through problems big and small, becoming very close friends, there for each other  at a moment's notice. We drank coffee in bed and made weekend plans and rearranged the house to create more space; we decluttered and painted and fenced in the backyard when our wonderful, old dogs died just a month apart and we ended up with a new puppy.

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One night we were out at a place we love called Ordinary, a refurbished space that had previously housed one of New Haven's most well-known bars. It's right around the corner from Anchor, which at that point had been shut down and reopened as a classier establishment, too. It probably doesn't serve such full glasses of wine anymore, which is a shame.

We were chatting with the bartender, who just so happened to have gone to high school with J, and was telling us how he'd recently moved into our neighborhood. He was making us a special cocktail before we left to see a band we liked at a nearby venue. Just then a couple we are friends with walked in and there were hugs and hellos. The kids were home with a sitter we trusted, and the bar was full of happy people. For the very first time I thought, "Wait, what if we don't leave?" 

I know. Funny that I hadn't thought that a million times before. But it seemed such an unlikely possibility, considering J's prospects were so much better if we looked all over, and the possibilities in Connecticut so sparse.  I'd never considered New Haven my forever-home. Doing so would have made it a million times harder to say goodbye, especially considering it was going to be so hard to say goodbye no matter what. 

And then the best news came: we don't have to. 

This summer J accepted an exciting position at a lab in Connecticut! It's about 40 minutes from our house, a not-bad commute that could be remedied by us moving a bit closer, a possibility we're exploring. Because now we can explore all the possibilities. Because we know what's next.

The refrain has changed. WE ARE STAYING, and all the things I always imagined would be part of our past tense New Haven years can continue to be part of our present. Plus who knows what else? A new house? Getting involved in the PTO? A new baby? Oh my god, I am kidding. 

It is a tangible shift. I've found myself more eager to explore the city, plan daytrips to unknown parts of the state, stop hating winter and - although our life will probably remain at least base level insane - make our daily schedule less frantic, more relaxing.

The other day I was having coffee with someone I'd just met for work, and as it happens sometimes, ended up saying the truest thing to a complete stranger: "I was afraid to fall in love with it here before, because I knew we'd have to leave. But now I can." 

Last weekend, being home after lots of time spent out of town this summer, we decided to go for a drive to check out New Haven neighborhoods and after awhile, the inevitable occurred: everybody wanted a snack. In search of lemondade and iced coffee and some kind of baked good we ended up at a bookshop and cafe downtown. 

J parked the minivan and we got out of the car to late afternoon sun and the kind of perfect summer weather that happens only about four days a year. 

I looked at my family there on the sidewalk, and said, "This is where we live!" 

And Nora, my always practical, now expertly-sarcastic Nora - who will, in the blink of an eye be a freshman at college asking her hallmates ubiquitous question, "Where are you from?" and answering in turn - replied, "Um, this sidewalk is not where we live - "

"Ok Nora," I said. "This is not where we live, but you get it. This is where we live now!"

"I mean, we actually live in a house - "

"Stop it! You know what I mean! This is home!"

She smiled. She knew what I meant. We walked down the street, in no hurry at all. 

Every day

It has been a little too eventful of a summer for me personally to write anything very emotional or specific just yet. Also, the past few days have been so politically charged that it seems like that's ALL one should be writing about, if one is writing, but I don't generally do that too often, because approximately one million other brilliant journalists do it so much better than I ever could. 

I did want to check in, though, with just a few words. I may have talked about this before, even multiple times, but a family friend once told me - when I was much younger - that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to write every day. This is not exactly advice I've followed, unless you count, um, text messages? To do lists? Terse emails to my darling husband about scheduling conundrums?

But considering this lovely summer afternoon - and I'm talking about lovely right here, in this living room, with the golden sunlight outside, and Aidy all exhausted and watching a kids' show, laughing because it is apparently hilarious - I thought it would be a good time to publicly recommit to this excellent advice. 

I am writing a book, and I'm pretty sure the only way I will ever finish it is to write every day that I am able, even if just a little. Even if it's while the kids claw at me, demanding snacks, or early in the morning over coffee while my family sleeps, or while J puts everyone to bed, and I have to resist the temptation of mindless Twitter scrolling. I will write every day, until the project is done. 

Hungry like the (annoying, helpless) wolf

Last year, one of the goals I made was to "try a new recipe every month." I was sort of successful, the excitement dying off by about March. So, come to think of it, I wasn't very successful. 

I wish I could say that the reason I made that goal was to improve myself or expand my skill set but the real reason is that meals in our house had become a stressful state of affairs and in some ways, they still are. Everything is generally fine. The kids are healthy. They're ok but not great eaters, Nora the only one who is truly difficult, although difficult in a weird way: she loves all fruits, most vegetables and a moderate handful of healthy standards that she can't get enough of, like tomatoes and mozzarella (with good olive oil), shrimp, guacamole, sourdough bread and olives. You might think this is charming, and I am here to tell you it is only charming when you're at a mediterranean or Mexican restaurant. 

I have a general and - I believe - reasonable philosophy about food, which is that you put food on the table, and the child can eat it, or not, but that is the meal and there is not another option. In theory this works out fine, but the problem is that just getting the food prepared and on the table was taking up so much energy while also not getting done in an efficient manner. No upside. The reason for this is planning. I wasn't planning our meals because I never put aside the few moments necessary to do so, and also because meal planning is lame. 

But like many lame things, it helps. SO MUCH. I'd imagine it helps any individual, couple or family, but with three little kids and weeks that look like ours - often with every night a presenting different scenario in terms of various activities, and in terms of which child is ready to blow a gasket - planning out what we are going to eat for dinner makes everything much, much easier. Because when the evening arrives, and the kids are very urgently telling me something about "SpongeBob" and exactly how many they are going to get to watch and when, and also screaming that they are hungry, HUNNNGGGRRYYYYY! BUT NOT FOR APPLE SLICES! and the dog is carrying somebody's shoe around in her mouth (commence more screaming) I don't have to make a decision about dinner, only to find that I can't even make that decision because we don't have the ingridients necessary to do so. Which is very upsetting and is when I start thinking about ordering pizza (which, let's be clear, occurs a lot regardless of planning). 

What happens on a good week - a week in which I am prepared, like this one - is that I look at the dry erase board and am all, "HEY problem solved. That's what we are eating, and the ingridients are all here in this kitchen, because I shopped for them ahead of time, and THAT is because I planned the living hell out of this week!"*

* at least as far as dinner is concerned, otherwise: no

(yes, it's true, I am taking an adult ballet class, post upcoming)

This week, like many, we got a Blue Apron delivery - three dinners that J and I make for ourselves on nights when the kids eat before us - and there was one night I was out, so we had to work with those specifics. It took literally ten minutes of work to plan out what we'd eat and put the required items on a shopping list. And voila, it is Wednesday and no one has had toast for dinner yet this week. Yet. This week.